Interview with Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo: They’ll see that it’s worthwhile

Reporters call her the Chilean La Pasionaria, the name given to Spanish Civil war hero Dolores Ibarruri. For the UK Guardian, she’s “Commander Camila” and a “Latin American folk hero.” She’s president of the Chilean Students’ Federation, and a picture of Karl Marx hangs in her office. Camila Vallejo, 23 years old, has been instrumental in propelling Chile’s student movement, mobilized now for almost six months. Student demands have ranged from free, quality education to basic constitutional change. Vallejo, a member of the Chilean Communist Youth organization, was interviewed recently by Voz (“Voice, the Truth of the People”), the Colombian Communist Party’s weekly newspaper. 

— W.T. Whitney Jr.

In the midst of turbulent struggle unleashed in the streets of Chile, Camila Vallejo runs from meeting to meeting, keeping up with her obligations as a militant of the Chilean Communist Youth, student head, and people’s leader. Right in the streets of Santiago, Chile, Voz spoke exclusively with Camila Vallejo who from the perspective of the movement discussed with us the student struggle in Chile. And she confessed to following the Colombian students’ struggle and encouraged the students there not to weaken.

What does the student movement represent for Chile today?

This is no movement that comes of spontaneity. It’s a movement that’s been developing over many years based on historical demands of the Chilean student movement, like state funding of public education and the democratization of institutions, the latter being no more than the government allowing for three way participation – students, educational officials, and outsiders, especially workers. This would be with students involved not only in institutional affairs but also in shaping the educational project and us coming up with proposals on the environment needed for universal access to education – minus devices causing it to waste away. Everything would be subjected to class criteria that also would generate knowledge in the service of the great majority and not just knowledge sold on the market and to companies with particular interests. We fight for a re-ordering under state auspices in which public institutions have to serve the development of the country.

In the streets of Chilean cities one sees student mobilizations, but indebted professionals are also joining these marches, some of them parents with a family. They’re out there with their children. What’s that kind of popular involvement due to?

What the student movement is now asking are demands that have been worked on for a long time. There is widespread questioning throughout society as to market parameters serving the business of education, the profiteering, and the concept of quality being measured by market objectives. So, many of these demands have been in place from a long time ago. What’s happening goes back to past mobilizations that once were asking for the same things. Those mobilizations were obviously frustrated, did not reach their objective, and the Concertacion government – the [left center] alliance of parties coming out of the dictatorship – betrayed the student movement of that time. It’s united today in making these demands that were never met.

Other sectors within Chilean society share these frustrations you mention. I refer to the workers, miners, unions, women, and unemployed that have associated themselves with the student demands. Why?

After raising the banners of student struggle, we find ourselves with a whole society that is asking why education wasn’t given guarantees. And beyond that, they are questioning the entire system: the democracy we don’t have, the absence of real participation, the elections always decided between four walls that always come out the same. Then it becomes necessary to ask where this problem came from. The reply obviously is the military dictatorship. And above all, we have to think about the future, and that future has to be something new because this neoliberal model now makes no sense and that new something has to be built with the Chilean people’s own hands.

What’s the goal of the Chilean mobilization?

We have a movement that succeeded in raising those issues we are talking about, ones that began to materialize in the demonstrations. It may have happened through the quantity of the people that came out in the streets in historic numbers. Or it may be a qualitative thing, the diversity of the marchers, since one sees now not only students but also, as you mention, families, workers, townspeople, and many organizations of varying complexions. So that indicates that what comes across as problems with different sectors amounts to social problems that have everything to do with the economic system – the political system of unjust distribution of power in economic terms. But politics are also involved. There is the necessity above all else for us to put respect for the rights of human beings at the center, and obviously the rights of the environment. There’s where we’re going.

Let’s return to the student struggle. What’s going on?

In the present circumstances, we are disposed to enter into a new dialogue with the Pinera government, but there are several obstacles. Even when we enter into talks with a right-wing government, the impact we have in advancing certain areas of structural reform is reassuring to us. These, we can say, serve as clear steps pointing in a correct direction. Nevertheless if it falls on us again to leave the negotiating table, we will do it.

Negotiations with a government like Pinera’s make me think it’s not going to be easy. What short-term difficulties do you see in negotiating?

Indeed, the new obstacle is the assault he’s carried out against the movement. There’s a projected law that penalizes, even criminalizes, the occupation of high schools, grade schools and universities. They implemented state terrorism. Students, for example, that go around hooded are penalized. Those that do it within a school are put on the same level as ones carrying out a criminal act like robbery or emptying out a commercial place. And that’s what’s worrisome because now the Pinera government is showing its most reactionary face. Here they are telling us that the movement was co-opted by the most radical sectors of the left, and we respond that the government is co-opted by the most radical sectors of the ultra right.

In Colombia we are in the middle of a national student strike, in the struggle against Law 30 and governmental [educational] reform, which is a very similar fight to what you have in Chile. Camila, through “Voz” you could send greetings to the comrade students advancing this struggle for education throughout Colombia. (N. B. Colombian President Santos wants to change Law 30, which governs education, to advance privatization.)

To all the comrade students of Colombia I do want to send very fraternal greetings through Voz. I desire for you all the success in the world. You have a model there quite similar to our own. In terms of the realities of the type of government and its right-wing political orientation, it’s quite comparable. Thus I truly do want to express solidarity and wish you every strength in your struggle. And in truth you will go through all the issues and exhaust all your much-needed resources, because, as you will see, it’s worthwhile. In the process you will find yourselves facing many difficulties. This struggle carries with it a lot of ingratitude but it’s necessary you do it and that young people do it – yet not only young people, but the rest of society too, called in to be with you.

The important thing is that this not be confined to the student setting, but that it transcend all Colombian society, so that everyone understands changes are necessary. Stay strong and every success!

(Translated by W. T. Whitney Jr.)

 Photo: Camila Vallejo (Voz)